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True to Nature

July 19, 2019

On a Saturday afternoon with no plans,  I decided to check out a new shop in my area. As I entered, I was greeted by a salesperson holding a tray of what appeared to be fudge. “Try one!” she smiled, thrusting the tray towards me. Never one to turn down sweets, I relented without objection. I was greeted not by chocolate, but a soapy taste distantly familiar from a time I had been instructed to wash my mouth out after using an R-rated word. It was only then that I looked up to see the chalkboard sign next to the tray of fudge, describing the ‘all natural’ benefits of edible soap.

It didn’t stop there. There were bags of potato chips adorned with terms like gluten-free and organic. There were clean lotions containing only nontoxic ingredients. In the freezer section I found frozen desserts that were plant-based and GMO-free. Most of the products had one term in common: all natural.

At one point, natural products were part of a niche market, lumped in with hemp seed oil, hacky sacks and healing crystals. Now, products marketed as natural are part of the mainstream. Grocery stores have taken advantage of this movement, with an increasing number of food packages sporting ‘natural’ on their labels. The beauty industry has also profited off this trend, with self-proclaimed natural brands making up about a quarter of all high-end skin care sales. Consumers often assume that the more natural, the better, unaware that there is no formal regulation of this widely abused term. According to Meriam-Webster’s online dictionary, the definition of natural is simply, “Closely resembling an original: true to nature.” It suggests a packaged food or beauty product is free of artificial ingredients, but many brands exploit this term, using it instead as a profitable ploy.

As a frustrated consumer, I can see how the misuse of certain terms can breed public distrust. With that said, there are a few earnest applications of the word. The one closest to my mortal heart is natural burials.

Now, I realize that discussing burials is not quite as glamourous as considering your skincare options at Sephora or your next purchase at Whole Foods. The subject of death may be something that you avoid completely, but conversations about death and dying, as well as funerals and burials, are well worth discussing. As mankind’s effect on the planet becomes more evident, many people feel they have a responsibility to live an ecologically friendly life, and they don’t want their efforts to end after death. Sustainable options are growing universally, and death care is no exception. So, what is a natural burial exactly, and is it just another exploitation of a trendy buzzword?

The thought of burials may conjure images of towering grave stones, ornate caskets, bursting flower arrangements, and luscious green cemetery lawns. You might consider this to be the traditional way. However, this elaborate approach to burials is relatively recent. Looking back only a few generations, the North American traditions in death were much simpler. The idea was the same – to bury a loved one in a dignified fashion, in a place of peace and serenity – but without the bells and whistles. When you take away the embalming fluid, fancy casket, and concrete grave markers, you’re left with a burial closer to what our grandparent’s grandparents would consider the norm. You have something “closely resembling an original: true to nature.” Something natural.

Modern natural burial grounds are simply a place to bury the dead without the frills. There are no pesticides on the grounds, the dead are not embalmed and are buried in a biodegradable shroud or container, and there are no concrete grave stones or liners. Also called green burial grounds, their aim is not only to stay true to the traditional approach to death, but to present an option that is sustainable. In choosing a natural burial, you choose not to contribute to the air pollution and fuel consumption associated with conventional cremations, or the expenditure of resources affiliated with conventional burials.

Come to think of it, natural burials do sort of fit in with natural soaps, lotions, and potato chips. Many of the brands producing these natural alternatives also make an effort to make their products with sustainably and responsibly sourced ingredients – depending on the company, of course. However, genuine natural burial grounds differ from some natural brands in that their aim is not to turn this trend into profit. In fact, natural burials are typically less expensive than conventional burials.

Options with ‘natural’ in the name should not be dismissed as just another marketing ploy. Yes, there are lipsticks out there that will slap this term onto their package without merit in order to encourage you to spend an extra $15 on the product. As green becomes more popular, there may even be cemeteries that will abuse the term ‘natural’ without meeting all the requirements associated with this title. What’s important is that consumers do their research, and make more responsible and informed decisions. With our choices, we can shape a future in which genuinely natural choices are not just a buzzy alternative, but the norm. A future where we can be more sustainable in life, in death, and, perhaps, enjoy a soapy snack mid-bath.


Katrina is a licensed funeral director and volunteer for the Natural Burial Association.